Yellowstone National Park is a captivating place. It grabs the soul and pulls us back year after year. At the top of every RVers bucket list, it is a place so majestic, so wild and big that it calls us to return, to explore, to get to know the diversity of its land and animals over and over again.
Some RVers make annual pilgrimages. Some volunteer as workers or hire on as temporary employees at the various concessions and park businesses. Anything to spend as much time there as possible.
A few, a very fortunate few, live there. Deby Dixon is one of those who – while technically not really living in the park year round – comes about as close as possible. She lives in and keeps her RV – a travel trailer – just outside the park gates and spends weeks at a time camping in the park in a tent. When she's not camping, she drives in most every day.
Deby is a former police officer now turned wildlife journalist and photographer. Jennifer and I met her this summer at Yellowstone, our second visit in a year to the park. We were camping at the Pebble Creek campground and hanging out in our Roadtrek, with the sliding door open, waiting for a black bear that had been browsing in a meadow directly across from us to step into better view. Alas, the bear instead headed back into the trees.
But then Deby passed by on her way out of the campground. She stopped, backed up and came over to check out our Roadtrek. Jennifer had met her earlier and so the two chatted. I gave a quick tour of the Roadtrek, which Deby thought would make a great vehicle for her.
She was camping a few spaces over in her tent.
She had been in that tent for close to a month.
This was in early July. When we returned home, I looked her up and have been a fan of her work ever since.
Debby, injured on the job as a law enforcement officer up in North Carolina, took up photography to illustrate articles she was writing for various publications on national parks. She loves all the national parks and has visited and photographed many. The photo above is a self portrait taken last year at Mt. Baker, looking toward Mt. Schuksan in North Cascades National Park where she worked as a photography volunteer.
Her love of the national park wilderness and the animals that live there started after a month-long camping trip to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in 2009. The experience dramatically changed her life.
“I no longer could stay home in the city,” she writes. “I sold everything and moved into a 1970s model, 17-foot-travel trailer (since upgraded to a newer 21 foot trailer) and left on a journey to see the parks.”
But since the fall of 2012, she's been pretty much living at Yellowstone, writing about and photographing wildlife, especially the fragile wolf pack that hangs out in the Lamar Valley. She knows each wolf's history, it's parents and siblings and the story of its struggle to survive. You'll learn all about that in our Q&A below.
She keeps her travel trailer in Gardiner, at the park's Northern entrances. Last winter, she rented an apartment there off season but made her way into the park every time she could all winter long.
Since the snow melted, she's spent a lot of time camping at Slough Creek or Pebble Creek, getting up most mornings at 4 AM and heading to her favorite vantage points in Lamar Valley in the northeast part of the park that is home to bison, black bears, grizzly bears, coyotes, badgers, otters, elk and wolves.
She will typically stay out there till mid or late morning, return to camp to edit her photos, maybe answer some e-mail, work on her photography column for National Parks Traveler magazine and then update her Deby Dixon Photography Page and a new one, strictly about the Park, the Yellowstone Daily. By 5 PM or so, she's back out in Lamar Valley, or wherever the animal action happens to be that day. Sometimes she will hike off to favorite spots to just sit and wait to see what animals show up. Often, she's not back at camp until way after dark.
Divorced, she has four grandchildren and two sons who live in Idaho. She travels and camps alone but has many friends at Yellowstone, fellow photographers and animal watchers. There's a whole community of like-minded people who spend as much time as they can at the park. You'll see them in the various pulloffs around the park's perimeter roads, usually with spotting scopes. Most are equipped with their own two way business band radios that they use to share sightings and pass along tips about what animals are where.
Deby is well respected by the other photographers, and park rangers as well, even though she has no official connection with the parks service.
“She's a great photographer and she's driven by a genuine love of the animals and the park,” the Pebble Creek campground host told me. “Everyone around here looks up to her. She is very dedicated. Has to be to keep the hours she keeps taking her pictures.”
Over the past couple of years, her almost daily stories and photos have captivated thousands who have discovered her animal advocacy journalism and wildlife photography. You, I am sure, will be among them once you check out the links to her Facebook Pages.
Here's my Q&A with Deby:
Q: Why is Yellowstone so important to you?
A: Because Yellowstone is a massive and diverse eco-system that has everything in nature that one could want – from the high peaks and sub-alpine meadows to the rocky desert sage. There are wide-open spaces, meadows and valleys and thick evergreen and conifer forests, along with lakes, streams and creeks. And then there is the scary mystery of the thermal features that constantly capture my imagination. I mean, if Yellowstone blows, I will be amongst the first to go as lava fields and plumes of ash spread. And then there is the wildlife, their lives, their interactions and their untimely deaths. For a wildlife/nature photographer who likes to write stories, Yellowstone has almost everything. Everything except the Tetons reflected in the Snake River, another favorite national park just to the south of Yellowstone.
Q: Why have wolves captured my heart?
A: Over a year ago my son asked me what I knew about the wolves and what kinds of experiences I have had with them. At the time I had seen a collared black wolf cross the road in front of me in the Tetons and four wolves hunting elk on Willow Flats in Teton National Park. Before seeing the wolf hunt prey that day, I had been anti-hunting because I couldn't stand to think of animals being killed in any way. However, while watching that hunt by the wolves, during which the elk rallied and saved a fawn but sacrificed a cow, I suddenly realized that this was the world the way it was intended to be.
Food was put on this earth for all of us and if we all just took what we needed, like the animals do, then there would be plenty. Hunting was simply a way of gathering food. Unfortunately, my son hates wolves and he proceeded to fill me in about these “vicious” animals. So much of what he said did not ring true but I had no way of know that for sure and so I kept my mouth shut. But, the conversation with my son weighed heavy on my mind and in my heart and so when I got the opportunity to spend a winter in Gardiner, MT, next to Yellowstone, I made the learning about wolves my mission. My slate was clean and I was eager to find out what the truth was about wolves, even if that meant that my son was right. But, I got here, to Yellowstone, and found a difficult situation in that those naturalists who watch over wolves are not fond of photographers and so the opportunities to see and learn were few. And, unknown to me, the wolves were being hunted when they stepped outside of the park. In fact, Yellowstone wolves were being targeted to be killed. Both situations were baffling to me because, obviously the lives of the wolves were in danger while people who could advocate for them were being pushed away. My determination was great and I preserved in my goal to learn the truth about the wolves – did they kill for sport? Do wolves prey on people? Are they killing all of the elk? Where are the elk? Those questions and many more. I learned that most of what my son, and other wolf haters, believe is not true or is greatly exaggerated. And, in the three years I had been visiting Yellowstone, the changes in the eco-system that was once ravaged by thousands of elk standing around without fear of predation, were apparent. Plus, Yellowstone had more moose then had been around for a long time. But, the thing that got to me the most was that there were people in the world with so much hate in their hearts that they would target wolves that lived in a national park and brought research, education and viewing opportunities to millions of people. These wolves had touched many lives and people came to Yellowstone from all over the world in hopes of seeing them. The wolves rarely left the park and had no history of killing livestock at that time, yet hunters were using carcasses, urine and puppy calls to lure them across the national park border so that one man's bullet could take one wolf away from millions.
This, to me, was incomprehensible then and still is, nearly one year later. In the past year I have watched the loss of key wolves have a devastating effect on their family member's, making them struggle to survive. I have had wolves stop only a few feet from me and look into my eyes and even had one appear on a cliff above my head, look at me and then lift her head to howl at the full moon. I have seen their struggles and felt their hearts. They are only trying to survive, just like you and I. I have stood and watched as researchers retrieved a female wolf's body from the forest, after she was killed by other wolves, and seen puppies play. I haven't seen it all in the wolf world, but I have seen a lot. Wolves have made me happy, sad and angry when they killed a favorite animal or a coyote's pups. They are not perfect, but neither am I. The wolf hunt is on in Montana again, longer this year, basically allowing hunters to do whatever is necessary to kill a wolf. Once again wolf haters want to kill collared or favorite Yellowstone wolves and once again I don't understand. The Montana government is pandering to a small group of loud, hateful people who don't have their facts straight and I can't understand why any government would condone that type of behavior. The problem is multi-layered because the watching of the wolves while in the park, and showing them to the public, has made the wolves accustomed to people and cars, making them easy targets for the hunters. Just recently my favorite wolf, the first one to look into my eyes, 820F, was killed in Jardine because she was bold around people and had no fear. She was not aggressive towards people but she was bold and was not easily hazed away. And so, because she was so habituated to humans, she was shot and killed, leaving behind two puppies. My heart was broken and it will be broken again, when other Yellowstone wolves are killed by hunters who want to take them away from the world. I believe that much can be done to change the future of the remaining Yellowstone wolves and so I photograph them whenever possible and share their stories with the world. I have turned wolf enthusiasts into avid wolf lovers, just by my photos and stories. And if I can continue doing that, one person at a time, then there might be hope that the wolves will survive long into the future. Because they belong to this earth.
Q: How will you spend this winter?
A: At the moment I plan to spend another winter in Gardiner where I will have access to the Northern section of Yellowstone on a daily basis. Just how that will happen is up in the air at this moment but there are a couple of options for me to consider. A little over two years ago I sold everything and purchased a small travel trailer so that I could spend my time at national parks. The trailer is not suitable for winter living and so I was able to find affordable, and wonderful, living accommodations for last winter but have been back in the trailer since April 15. When you met me I was camping in the park, in my tent, so that I could be closer to the wolves and be there to see the puppies when they finally emerged from the dens. I spent a month in the tent before returning to my trailer in Gardiner where I am now living. I hope to spend more time editing photos and writing stories for a couple of books that I hope to have completed towards the end of next year. In other words, this journey is expensive and I need to make it pay so that I can continue.
Q: Do you get lonely out there?
A: Yes, but not often. I do not have anyone at hand to tell the stories of my day, which is why Facebook and blogging is so important to me. For a number of years I didn't blog and found that my stories were lost from memory because it is only in the re-telling or writing that they become a solid piece of history. If I go out into the wilderness and see five wolves playing but can't share the moment with anyone, then it is lost. The magic is gone. With Facebook, I get to tell whoever wants to read about the wonders of Yellowstone or any other place that I happen to be visiting. There are times when I crave close companionship and a conversation but my life is over-flowing with wonderful adventures, along with photos to edit and stories to write. I have no time left at the end of the day and my lifestyle is not conducive to close relationships. I don't even know what movies are playing or what the top ten songs are, so conversation would be limited to bears, elk, moose, wolves, etc. Still, I think that maybe someday the right person will come along. I have been single for over 20 years and while I don't look for anyone, I haven't given up.
So there you go. Now you know Deby Dixon. Once again, her Facebook Pages are:
The Yellowstone Daily at facebook.com/TheYellowstoneDaily
Deby Dixon Photography at facebook.com/debydixonphotography